While Ice Age glaciers were flattening out north-central Illinois, the melt-water was carving a magnificent series of small canyons through sandstone bluffs along what is now the Illinois River.
Starved Rock State Park is a gorgeous monument to the power of ice and water, 3,200 tree-covered acres in Oglesby, Illinois.
The massive parking lot at the Visitors Center is testament to the tremendous popularity of Starved Rock, about two hours west of Chicago. Consider visiting on a weekday to avoid some of the crowds, or make a trip during colder months, when ice formations decorate the canyons and their waterfalls, and the fireplace is roaring at the huge but cozy Starved Rock Lodge.
At the Visitors Center, travelers will find a small museum that tells the history of the region, including the legendary tragedy that gave the park its name. Although there is no archeological evidence for the incident, Illiniwek Indians reputedly sought refuge from an enemy tribe atop a 125-foot-tall sandstone butte on the river and starved to death there while besieged.
Today, a path and series of staircases take visitors to the top of the rock for tremendous views of the river and the nearby Starved Rock Lock and Dam. (And don’t worry, there are plenty of places to eat in the park when you descend.)
The park lodge, built in the 1930s and well-maintained, is the jumping off point for a variety of guided boat or trolley tours throughout the year, including a Fall Colors tour, a Christmas Lights tour in late December and a Discover the Eagles tour in January and February, when bald eagles frequent the area. (Although the eagles seem to get all the love, my favorite park avian is the American white pelican, one of the biggest birds in North America.)
The lodge also offers a variety of dining options including a cafe, bar and very good fine-dining restaurant.
Almost 13 miles of well-marked trails lead to 18 canyons. The park is stretched out along the river with parking lots at trailheads all along the way, so it’s just a short hike to many of the most-scenic park destinations.
Just across the Illinois River is the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The center has displays about the lock and dam and its role in assisting commercial river traffic.
Nearby, visitors can enjoy the charming and historic little town of Utica, with several wineries, food and drink options and the LaSalle County Historical Museum.
Also nearby, the city of Ottawa celebrates its role as the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate with a number of memorials to the event, including murals and a larger-than-life statue of the larger-than-life statesmen.
For more information, visit starvedrockstatepark.org or enjoylasallecounty.com.